Never in my life have I seen such a weak Kentucky Derby field overall. Some say that there are no horses left to get really excited about. There are a couple that have superstar ability somewhere deep inside them, but even they have some serious questions that need to be answered.
I am talking about Uncle Mo, The Factor, and Soldat. These three are the only horses that have run Beyer Speed Figures over 100 at the long distance races, called “route races” (as opposed to sprint races).These three horses failed as the favorite in the Wood, The Arkansas Derby, and the Florida Derby, respectively. Soldat was a solid horse, and The Factor and Uncle Mo both looked like they at least had the potential to be superstars.
But other than these few, the rest of the field looks like a bunch of mediocre animals. These may be the slowest Derby preps ever. Not a single Kentucky Derby prep race was run in which the winner scored a Beyer number over 100. In 2004, the year Smarty Jones won the Derby, eleven horses were coming into the Derby having run over 100 – Eleven! This year there will be not even one! What is going on?
Florida Derby winner Dialed In will, therefore, likely inherit the role as favorite, but even he has not been particularly dazzling in terms of winning times. It is true he has won both his starts this year, but he did so with Beyers of 97 and 93.
Let’s compare this to a few other Derby favorites in recent years. In 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus came into the 2000 Kentucky Derby off a 111 Beyer performance in the Wood Memorial. In 2001, Point Given had over a 112 Beyer for his 5-length romp in the Santa Anita Derby; Empire Maker came in with a 111 off his Florida Derby effort in 2003; Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby with a 107 in 2004, and in 2005 Bellamy Road and Afleet Alex entered the Derby off 120 and 108 Beyer efforts, respectively. The beloved Barbaro came into the 2006 Derby off a winning performance in the Florida Derby with a 103 and eventual Derby winner Big Brown earned a 106 in the 2008 Florida Derby.
Now we know Speed Figures don’t mean everything, and times and speed ratings are really only important to hardcore racing fans. The casual fan will not care that the fields is a little on the weak side – it doesn’t mean you can’t pick your favorite and hope for an exciting race.
I know I am going to enjoy the race no matter what. I have settled on rooting for Dialed In, not because he is the probable favorite, but because his trainer Nick Zito is so darned excited about this horse. Mr. Zito has won two Kentucky Derbys in the early 1990s with Strike the Gold and Go For Gin, and anyone who has ever seen his reactions after they crossed the finish line know that he is more outwardly enthusiastic than even the wildest spectators, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Nick go crazy again.
Having said that, there is the possibility of a superhorse emerging, and that is Uncle Mo. He was supposed to be the Point Given, the Smarty Jones, or the Barbaro of 2011, but as we know, he flopped in the Wood. If we can excuse that race and trainer Todd Pletcher can work his magic, then maybe, just maybe, we will be in for a spectacular performance. But despite the credentials of the trainer, and widespread acknowledgement of Uncle Mo’s raw talent, will he be ready? Most horse racing veterans agree that he doesn’t have the foundation as a three-year-old that most successful Derby winners have, but if this field is a little light on talent and maybe if he shows up with 80%, that will be enough to win.